After 35 years as a marriage and family therapist, Ken Potts has a word of advice for couples with children contemplating remarriage: Don't even try to act like you're a biological family.
Don't expect step-siblings to look upon one another as brothers and sisters. Don't ask stepparents to play the role of parents.
Save yourself a lot of frustration. Be what you are. That's the key message in the new book Potts co-authored with his wife, Tammy, "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children."
Potts, a therapist with Samaritan Interfaith Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove and author of the "That's Life" column that appears weekly in the Daily Herald, doesn't like the term "blended family" because he says it sounds like a recipe from a cannibal's cookbook. In the book, he uses the word "mixed" to give advice born out of his own practice, research in the field of stepfamilies, and the experience he and Tammy had in creating their own mixed family 13 years ago.
"Most of the mixed families I've worked with come in with expectations based on biological families and are frustrated, hurt, disappointed and just lost," he said. "We've been using a model that simply doesn't fit."
Potts isn't quite sure how the image of the American middle-class family as a mom, dad and children portrayed in "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave it to Beaver" TV sitcoms of 1950s and '60s came to be quite so prevalent. It isn't what families have looked like for most of human history, he said.
Worse yet, the "normal" family image sets up false expectations that real families struggle with as they try to make their marriages and home life work.
"I was amazed at the number of couples who said this is such a relief, especially in terms of step-relationships," he said. "It was like a burden was lifted off them."
Potts isn't saying step-relatives shouldn't respect and try to like each other, but that - given their lack of biological ties and shared history - love automatically won't be there.
They may never be close, or family-like bonds may develop over time as they did in his own remarriage. When he and Tammy married 13 years ago, she was a widow with two teenagers, 13 and 15. He was a divorced father with a 19-year-old, 8-year-old and 5-year-old.
Potts and his wife didn't ask their separate kids to become family, he said. They did set up ground rules for how they would treat each other as roommates (people sharing the same house) and as neighbors (as in the New Testament meaning of "treat your neighbor as yourself").
"By not forcing them to care for each other, they've learned to do that on their own," Potts said. "Most of them are even friends."
He recalled about a year ago, when his daughter and Tammy's daughter - two young women with very different personalities - got into a squabble. When he took his daughter aside to say although this wasn't her sister, she needed to treat her stepsister politely, he got an interesting reaction.
"She is too my sister," his daughter said emphatically.
Potts won't guarantee that will happen in every family and isn't offering his own family as a model.
"What was surprising to me is how often my own emotions got in the way of my seeing what was going on," he said. "We have our ups and downs and challenges just like everybody else."
Couples with children contemplating remarriage face the usual challenges of marital union and then some, he said. Some studies suggest that up to 60 percent of second marriages fail.
Potts advises that remarrying couples get counseling ahead of time and consider going back for periodic checkups.
"Usually they wait until it's such a crisis, it's call us or call an attorney," he said.
Couples should consider carefully where their children are developmentally when entering a new relationship, he said. They might even postpone marriage until their children are more ready to handle the change, he said.
Therapist and writer
Considering how seriously Potts takes parenting, it's not a surprise that he once suggested in a newspaper column that parents should be licensed. It turned out to be his most controversial piece in 29 years of column writing.
"I got a lot of feedback on that. It was not positive," he recalled.
Potts said his weekly newspaper reflections on life and relationships usually elicit about a call a week from someone who wants to discuss his or her own situation. A collection of his columns is published in book form under the title "Take One Day at a Time."
Potts, 59, said his new book came out of a desire to leave a legacy, a practical contribution in the field of remarriage counseling in which he has focused his attention for the last 35 years. That doesn't mean he plans to leave therapy work anytime soon, he said.
"By my sophomore year in college, I knew this was what I wanted to do," he said. "I like to understand people. I also like to feel I make a positive difference in people's lives."
"Mix, Don't Blend" is available at Anderson's Bookshops, Borders, Barnes & Noble and amazon.com.
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